Denver Dialogues Governance Human Rights War

Despite the Paris Attacks, Europe’s Refugee Crisis is an Opportunity to Confront the Past

Rachel Epstein for Denver Dialogues

A refugee event in London, September 12, 2015. By Alex Donohoe.

A refugee event in London, September 12, 2015. By Alex Donohoe.

The plight of refugees arriving in Europe has been grim, and it could get grimmer if Europeans interpret the attacks on Paris as having resulted from the European Union’s asylum policies. Refugees have been exposed to the elements, criminality, arson attacks and police brutality at some borders, as Patrick Pierson pointed to on this site. As of last week, the Financial Times reported that up to 6,000 people a day were still arriving in Greece. Meanwhile, although the EU voted in September to distribute 160,000 asylum-seekers across the member states (a small proportion of people actually seeking refuge), only 147 had been relocated under that plan by the time of the EU summit on the crisis last week.

Although refugees have encountered both openness and hostility across the EU, on balance, there has been more hostility emanating from the Eastern side of the continent. In particular, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia all voted against the asylum-seeker resettlement plan. While Poland and the Baltic States eventually voted in favor of resettlement, it was with severe reservations. Since the Paris attacks, however, Poland has reversed its position, with the new minister for European affairs announcing that the country would not accommodate refugees under the EU plan because of security concerns. The refugee crisis threatens not only passport-free travel within the EU, but also challenges European solidarity. As former Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Rostowski recently wrote, “Western Europeans are indulging in an orgy of self-righteousness over the Syrian refugee crisis, and eastern Europeans have become a favorite whipping boy in this story.

While the refugee crisis has generated anger, shame and conflict, it can also be seized upon as a potential opportunity intrinsic to the European integration project. In phases of the post-war period, many (but not all) West European countries, and especially elements in Germany, were rigorous in confronting and rejecting the bigotry and brutality that had led to the rise of fascism and the Holocaust. During World War II and after, the United States had to come to terms with the fact that it had fought the Nazis with a segregated military (see Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent) — a contradiction whose perniciousness was not really fully aired until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

But before engaging my own orgy of self-righteousness, I should point out that my country also is often not as good at confronting its sometimes exploitative and even murderous past as I think it could and should be. An article from earlier this year on the Whitney Plantation, the first museum dedicated exclusively to the subject of slavery in America, pointed out that we built a museum devoted to the Holocaust more than 20 years before we built a museum to honor American slaves—and the latter importantly without public funds. On this strange state of affairs, Professor Eric Foner noted that “If the Germans built a museum dedicated to American slavery before their own Holocaust, you’d think they were trying to hide something.” Indeed.

My point about coming to terms with past atrocities, however imperfect in the West, is that for the most part it was not allowed to happen in the East, and certainly not through any sanctioned liberal lens. Balázs Trencsényi has convincingly argued that in countries like Poland and Hungary, there was no way their post-communist transitions and politics could avoid the effects of past and unresolved traumas from the 1920s through the Cold War. These included mass terror in the service of political repression, forced population transfers and deportations, involuntary collectivization and industrialization and, of course, the Holocaust. East Central European countries and their populations were victims in much of this, but there was culpability too in what Trencsényi calls the “complicated dialectics of compromise and resistance. . .”

The sensitivities around alleged culpability run very high. In Poland, for example, the documentary film Shoah fueled outrage in the 1980s, as did Jan T. Gross’ book Neighbors in the early 2000s, and as did the US FBI director’s op-ed earlier this year that claimed Nazi Germany had accomplices in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere. Each of these controversies presents a complex debate and my intention is not to adjudicate them here. Rather, I want to highlight the still diverging narratives between East and West, including among extremely knowledgeable and well-intentioned people in some cases. Competing interpretations revolve around what Europe’s exceptionally violent past means, what role religious intolerance played, who bears responsibility for that, and finally, why the current refugee crisis and Europe’s response to it should or should not be viewed in terms of how effective Europe’s liberal reckoning has been.

While the focus here has been on the differences between East and West Europe, the divisions between East and West are not always clear-cut, and in reality the shift toward exclusive nationalisms (in Vladimir Tismaneanu’s terms) has too many adherents across the Continent (not to mention in the United States). And we can probably expect more such adherents in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Under conditions of fear, values such as inclusivity and religious pluralism can never be taken for granted, even in the world’s longest-standing democracies. In this sense, the refugee crisis is another opportunity to have the debate and, hopefully, for liberal forces to win the argument.

Leave a Comment